Security experts give Trump a reality check on what constitutes a national emergency

The only emergency might be who we're doing to ourselves — which, admittedly, would be a tough rallying cry for Trump.

President Donald Trump speaks during a rally at Florida International University  on February 18, 2019 in Miami, Florida. CREDIT: Joe Raedle/Getty Images.
President Donald Trump speaks during a rally at Florida International University on February 18, 2019 in Miami, Florida. CREDIT: Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

To hear President Donald Trump speak about the things he thinks constitute threats to the United States — possibly requiring him to declare a national emergency — one might think that we are about to be done in by any number of things.

“Monstrous” caravans of gang members — artfully disguised as migrants, including children.

Socialism — which, apparently, is trying to leap into the United States from Venezuela.

German cars — yeah, we don’t even know, but apparently importing them without huge tariffs could pose a threat to our national security.


So far, one of those things has risen, in the president’s mind, to the level of a national emergency, a designation with a vague definition.

After the president on Friday declared a national emergency in order to get his border wall built, it took just three days for a third of the country’s states to file a lawsuit against the administration saying Trump had overstepped his authority.

The Pentagon has already stated that it doesn’t see what’s happening at the southern border as a national emergency.

So we started to wonder: What should we be worrying about? What other external threats (discounting broad issues like climate change or domestic ones like the opioid crisis) might be lurking about?


ThinkProgress contacted people who are essentially paid to lose sleep over this stuff — security experts with military, intelligence, and, deep academic knowledge (and combinations thereof) to see if they felt there was anything within their spheres of expertise that might rise to that level now or in the near future.

Over phone calls and e-mails, here’s what they had to say.

Ned Price, director of policy and communications at National Security Action

Price also served in the CIA from 2006 to 2017.

There are any number of urgent crises. But the term “national emergency” should be received for true emergencies — major terrorist attack or threat, missing nuclear material, major cyber attack, a stand-off with a nuclear-armed adversary, etc.

There’s no substantive basis that would…define the situation on our southern border as an “emergency.” There’s zero, zilch, none.


When it comes to urgent national security issues, however, we need not look much farther than recent statements from our intelligence community to see that Trump’s approach re-contouring the international system in ways that will have long-lasting and profound implications for America’s ability to protect our interests and our values around the world.

Last month, for example, the [Office of the Director of National Intelligence] released its National Intelligence Strategy, which states that our adversaries will attempt to take advantage of changing conditions in the international environment — the same changing conditions Trump himself is responsible for. … Just days later, DNI [Dan] Coats told Congress that America’s partners and allies are seeking greater independence from Washington because of their perceptions of the course on which we’re headed.

The upshot is that America has increasingly emboldened adversaries and increasingly independent-minded allies. … What’s at stake is what has made America great — at home and abroad — over the course of decades. And it’s Donald Trump’s approach to the world that has put us in this position.

Debra Decker, senior advisor at The Stimson Center

Decker also previously advised the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Homeland Security on strategy and risk.

I do believe our domestic issues are paramount. However, cybersecurity is an issue that needs to be addressed both domestically — in terms of promoting resilience — and internationally — in terms of developing agreed norms.

The real national emergency is what we are doing to ourselves. We are not paying enough attention to domestic investments — including in education and infrastructure. We are not developing fiscally responsible budget plans. We are not sufficiently supporting innovation, including in cybersecurity. And we are not thinking through appropriate ways to address domestic U.S. industries having to compete with state-owned/supported competitors. This is not news. …But we haven’t had the will to develop effective strategies to address these critical issues.

Terence Roehrig, professor and director of the Asia-Pacific Studies Group at the U.S. Naval War College

[A national emergency] is difficult to define with precision — certainly, it would have to be something that poses the possibility of high costs for the U.S. and that the usual procedures and institutions/groups are unable to handle the emergency.

While border security and immigration are important topics that are long overdue for a careful and reasoned examination, the current circumstances are hardly a national security emergency. In fact, I would argue that the notion of a “national emergency” is and should be a very high bar and that there is no need to designate this for any issue at the moment….

For example, U.S.-China relations continue to be the most important bilateral relationship for international politics and there are many points of friction between Washington and Beijing. However, this relationship does not rise to the level of a national emergency. While many issues are very serious and deserve greater attention, designating an issue a “national emergency” should be reserved for circumstances of far greater magnitude.